Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas

December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Particularly in Europe, it is celebrated as St. Nicholas Day, and the tradition is to put chocolate and gifts into the children’s shoes for them to find in the morning – a tradition that my wife keeps in our home.

I don’t know if you’ve met them or not, but there are some Christians who think that Santa Claus is evil and that he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas. Not to mention, some would point out, that Santa is nothing more than a misspelling of SATAN, which must be why he goes around in those obnoxious red clothes: because he is from HELL and wants to take you and your kids back there with him!
This of course, is based on a sad lack of knowledge regarding the origin of Santa Claus – the name (in English) being simply a direct derivative of “Saint Nicholas”.

For this reason, some Christians protest anything to do with Santa Claus, and tell their kids that Santa is not real, he is bad, and he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas, which of course is Jesus.

This Christmas season, as we do every year, we will tell our kids the story of the real Saint Nicholas – who was not a mythical fat man in red clothes who rode through the skies on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, but a devout Christian man, a pastor, who was persecuted for his faith, and gained fame because of his generosity to the poor and needy.

We don’t avoid Santa Claus – we don’t even want to. We see it as a great opportunity to teach our kids about a great Christian man who loved Jesus and was generous and kind because of the love of God which was in his heart. THAT is the “Christmas spirit”.

We tell our kids that there are many people in the world who want to follow the example of Saint Nicholas, and that is why they will meet a Santa at their school and at the mall – and some of them will have very fake beards, because none of them are the real Saint Nick. We also teach our kids that, as Christians, we want to be like Saint Nicholas too, and we are going to be generous to the poor and needy too because God loved us so much that he gave us his Son, Jesus, so that we could have eternal life and have a relationship with God.

The Story of the Real Saint Nicholas

The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right – no North Pole and reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches. His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”, Nicholas dedicated to use his entire inheritance to assist the sick, needy and suffering.
He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.

Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.
As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th.

As Christians, we should take back the true story of St. Nicholas

Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a poor man who had three daughters who were of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband, and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves. After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house, leaving them 3 anonymous gifts – each time a bag of gold, which was tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping. Legend has it that the gold fell into their shoes, the reason for the tradition in Europe that St. Nicholas leaves gifts in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

My favorite story about Nicholas is what he did at the the Council of Nicaea, where bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the major doctrinal controversies facing the church. Chief among these was Arianism, propagated by Arius, which denied the full deity of Jesus, saying instead that he was a created being – a view that is carried on today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The debate got very heated, and based on the study of the scriptures, Arianism was deemed heretical. Nicholas argued from the scriptures for the deity of Christian and against Arianism, and at one point got so upset with something that was said about Jesus from the other side, that he slapped an Arian. That’s my kind of Santa!

Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.

Expecting Nothing in Return? Not Usually.

For a long time, I have found this sentence from Jesus to be both extremely beautiful and terribly convicting:

But love your enemies, and do good, and give, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Luke 6:35)

This is the definition of generosity: giving, expecting nothing in return. Nothing.

That means that a generous person doesn’t keep an accounting in their relationships, i.e. a running tally of who has done more for whom. They don’t keep score. They are free from that – free to give, expecting nothing in return.

That’s a lot easier said than done though…

Recently in my conversations with two people, this topic came up. One in particular likes to help people. He’s always helping people and doing favors. Nice, right? Except there’s one problem: he’s become resentful towards some of the people he’s helped out.

The other person explained to me that he likes to buy things for other people, little token gifts. But he too struggles with feelings of resentment, when he feels that his gestures of kindness are not reciprocated.

Both of these people would say that when they do these things, they don’t expect any form of compensation for them, but yet, both of them feel resentful. Why?

At least in the case of the first person, it is because, albeit subconsciously, oftentimes he isn’t just helping for the sake of helping – he’s doing it because there is a form of compensation that he hopes to receive for doing it. In his case it is not money, it is friendship. If and when friendship does not result, he feels that he was involved in a transaction in which the other party did not pay. The only thing is: the other party wasn’t aware of the assumed agreement and didn’t realize it was a transaction.

“Free” is rarely free.

What that means is that some people give a lot, but they’re not generous – because they give for selfish reasons. For example, the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 gave a lot to the Temple, but the reason he gave was so that other people would see it and praise him as a good person. His giving was a means of self-justification and self-glorification. The money still went to good use, and it is certainly better to give to a good cause for bad reasons than to spend money wastefully or only on yourself, but God is also concerned about why we give what we give.

Tim Keller, speaking about generosity, says that some people are always doing things to help other people, but they are actually using those people to feel good about themselves – i.e. they need those people to need them. They need for people to think they are good people. It’s their source of identity and their means of trying to justify their life. They’re not doing nice things for other people for the sake of those people themselves as much as they are actually doing it for themselves.

True generosity is when you act from selfless motivation, giving something and expecting nothing in return.

This is what Jesus encourages, saying, “your father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4)

Again, that is easier said than done. The way we can be motivated to truly act that way is through the message of the Gospel. First of all, the Gospel is that God has been generous to you, not as a transaction, but simply just because He loves you and enjoys blessing you. That’s grace. Secondly, the Gospel gives you an identity: it affirms you, saying that God not only knows you fully, but loves you completely.

Many people believe that they can either be known completely or loved completely, but not both – because if someone really gets to know them, they couldn’t possibly love them. Therefore, in order for people to love them and accept them completely, they cannot possibly allow anyone to know them completely.

But the message of the Gospel is that God BOTH knows you completely and loves you completely – at the same time. That’s incredible love and affirmation.

The message of the Gospel is that you have been justified in Christ, therefore you don’t need to work hard to justify yourself.

And when you really understand that – you’ll be free to give, expecting nothing in return: like God who gives even to the evil and the ungrateful. You’ll be free to give for the sake of giving, for the sake of another person or a cause, with no strings attached, because you are so firm in your identity, that you are already loved and justified and have value. The Gospel sets us free from our ulterior motives in doing even good things and from feelings of resentment towards those we have done acts of kindness for.

 

Give…expecting nothing in return

One of the sayings of Jesus that I find most inspiring and challenging is in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6, where Jesus says:

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

(Luke 6:32-35 ESV)

Most of us do things for others with at least some expectation that we will receive something in return. If we are nice to others, we expect that they will be nice to us in return. If they are not, we tend to get upset about it.

Many of us give with the expectation, that at least the recipient will be appreciative of our generosity.

Many of us love, with the expectation that our love will be reciprocated – and if it is not, then we tend to “clam up”, because to love is to make oneself vulnerable, and unreciprocated love leaves us more vulnerable than reciprocated love.

But here is Jesus challenging us toward something that does not come naturally: to GIVE, expecting nothing in return.

Nothing.

Why? Because that is how God loves.  And if you do that, then you will understand the heart of the Father in a profound way, and you will be like Him. Because He gives to the ungrateful and the evil – He blesses people who don’t deserve it and don’t even appreciate it.  

If He gets nothing out of it, then why does He do it?   Because that is what divine love does: it gives, not as a means of coercion, but simply gives out of pure love.

I want to be that kind of person, to my wife, to my kids, to those around me – even to my “enemies”. This is the vision; only by the grace of God can I carry it out.

Should I Tithe if I’m in Debt?

One of the questions I am frequently asked as a pastor is whether people who are in debt should tithe to their church, or if they should rather dedicate that money to paying off their debt.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, my wife and I have paid off our debt. More about that in this post: Debt Free!

First of all, I should say that the New Testamnet does not require that a person give a tithe (10% of their income donated to the congregation where they worship) per se. Although this requirement did exist in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel, the New Testament teaches that we are to give unto the Lord not out of obligation but from a cheerful heart, to contribute to the work of the Lord and the community of faith. Many, however, including myself, believe that the Old Testament standard of a tithe, although not required by the New Testament, is a good guideline for giving.

According to Business Insider, the average American household is $6,500 in debt – that’s consumer debt not related to their mortgage.

The average American household carries $6,500 of consumer debt

There is a good chance that MOST people in any given church in America are in thousands of dollars of debt. That means that there are multitudes of faithful Christians who desire to honor God with their money by giving to Him of their first fruits and investing in building His Kingdom and spreading the Gospel – who wonder if giving a few hundred dollars in tithe to their church every month should rather be directed towards paying off their debt.

The short answer? Yes, I think you should regularly give tithes and offerings, even if you are in debt.

I know that some people will not agree with that – but please understand that I do not say that lightly at all. I too am in debt, and yet I tithe. I don’t want to be in debt, in fact, I’m working very hard to get out of debt. Last year we had some unexpected expenses which we deemed worthy of going into debt for. So, I say this as one who is in the same boat – carrying debt and struggling with whether to give a tithe or offering to my church or use that money to help pay off our debt.

I too am in debt, and yet I tithe

Here is why I tithe even though I have debt:

The tithe is not God’s way of raising money, it’s God’s way of raising kids.

I tithe because it is a values issue, and it trains my heart. By making the first check I write every month my tithe check, I am making a clear statement of my priorities and values. And it sends a message to my heart, that for us, we would rather invest in the Kingdom of God and the furtherance of the Gospel than just buying more stuff.

‘But, wait’ – you might say: ‘You wouldn’t be using that money to buy more stuff, you would be using that money to pay off your debt for the stuff you already bought.’ That’s nice in theory, but in practice, most people, with a few hundred more dollars in their pocket, won’t regularly devote that money to aggressively paying off their debt, it will just be a cushion on their budget.

The key to getting out of debt for many people is changing your lifestyle, not having a little more money – and tithing helps you change your lifestyle.

People who have more money – guess what they do? They spend more money. I watched a documentary on Netflix the other day about how an astonishing number of professional athletes go broke within just a few years of retirement. They had a lot of money and they spent a lot of money. What we need is a lifestyle change, not just more money. I have found that letting go of some of my money and giving it to God as the first thing I do when I get paid releases me from the grip of money – and helps me to change my lifestyle.

I have found then when I tithe vs when I don’t tithe, I don’t really end up with more money in my pocket, or get ahead with getting out of debt.

A sacrifice is only a sacrifice if it hurts.

David said, I will not sacrifice to the Lord that which cost me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24)  The woman who gave 2 mites – it was a relatively insignificant amount to the rest of us, but for her IT HURT. And Jesus publicly commended her for giving in a sacrificial way, although she could have just as well used that money to buy milk or bread which she probably had need of. She gave sacrificially, and Jesus not only commended her for it – God made sure it was recorded for all time so that generation after generation could learn from her example.

Worship and sacrifice are very closely related. We all sacrifice for what we worship. If we don’t sacrifice as an act of worship, well just put some thought into what that says about who you worship…

God is looking for vessels He can pour into, who will then pour back out what He has given them in ways that He desires. If we show ourselves faithful stewards with little, he will entrust us with more. I believe that God honors those who step out in faith and give radically and generously – because He is a God who also gives radically and generously, and when we do that, it aligns us in a greater way with His heart.

Is this a hard, fast rule? No. It’s a principle. But yet, it is the one principle, which God challenges us to test him on (see Malachi 3:10).

God loves a joyful giver. He doesn’t want people to give out of a sense of coercion or obligation. But this is a principle of which God says: “If you want to live the full life that I have designed for you, if you want to experience joy, then walk in this way,” – ‘the way everlasting’.